While its high-profile players have had various troubles over the summer, the AFL PR machine has been hard at work in the “off season”, especially in its attempts to rejuvenate the public perception of AFL boss  Andrew Demetriou.

The AFL CEO tends to not be a favourite of football fans (although that is hardly unusual, virtually all AFL bosses are loathed during their tenure, but respected afterwards), but has managed to maintain a faced of fiscal and governance respectability. This image has been largely generated by the AFL itself, partially to vindicate Demetriou’s $2.2 million annual salary, and possibly to defend against accusations of fiscal mismanagement.

A glowing profile in Fairfax’s Good Weekend Magazine before the start of the current AFL season took an especially kind view on Demetriou’s accomplishments. Walkey Award-winning features writer Amanda Hooton noting that:

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“Andrew Demetriou is the CEO of the AFL Commission (which runs the AFL competition) and, like Lindsay Lohan, he’s a consistent performer. In seven years in the job, he has transformed how, where and by whom Aussie rules is played. He’s revolutionised the code’s response to illicit drug use; initiated a policy to improve the treatment of women; allowed free movement of uncontracted, end-of-term players between clubs; and supported some of the strongest anti-discrimination policies in international sport.”

Those views don’t appear to be universal. The AFL’s drugs policy, while in some ways groundbreaking, has also been heavily criticised by many inside and outside the code, being described by some as a “soft on drugs” approach. Moreover, Demetrious stance on “free agency” has been heavily criticised, with Jeff Kennett claiming that the rules will pit “player against player, club against club, it will be uncontrollable [with the AFL having] produced a bowl of spaghetti which is slippery, has no definable ends, and administrators are going to find it increasingly difficult to manage their clubs.”

The anti-discrimination policies of the AFL, while world-leading, were established well before Demetriou’s appointment (starting from incidents involving indigenous players in the mid-1990s and spearheaded by the likes of Michael Long and Nicky Winmar).

But where most commentators overstate Demetriou’s apparent achievements is in financial realms, possibly because most sports writers don’t have a great commercial background. For example, Hooton noted that:

“[Demetriou] also almost tripled the AFL’s annual turnover, partly via a record-breaking $780-million media rights deal in 2006. That deal is up for renegotiation, and he’s expected by many to winkle more than $1 billion out of broadcasters this time around.”

Meanwhile, in February, the code announced its highest-ever revenue, for last year’s season: $335.8 million; its biggest operating surplus, $23 million; and record club membership of more than 614,000.

The claim that Demetriou is in some way personally responsible for the 2006 broadcast rights deal is a dubious one. AFL as a spectator sport held a dominant position well before Demetriou was appointed CEO, while broadcast rights for most major sporting competitions, such as NFL, Premier League Soccer and Cricket, have been skyrocketing since the early 1990s. This has been largely due to the popularity of cable broadcast television, and the willingness of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch to “bid up” the cost of pay-TV rights (sporting rights underpinned the growth in cable subscriptions).

For example, the value of the NFL broadcast rights leapt from US$1.1 billion annually in 1997 to US$3 billion per year in the 2006-2013 agreement — a three-fold increase. By contrast, AFL broadcast rights increased from $500 million in 2001 to $780 million in 2006, a far lesser rise. Even if the AFL achieves a $1 billion agreement in 2011, that increase pales in comparison to the appreciation in the value of NFL rights, includes a substantial amount of contra advertising and also will lead to fewer games being broadcast on free-to-air networks.

It is in that regard where Demetriou, the AFL Commission and even the club presidents have disappointed. For with the possible exception of Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett, and perhaps Collingwood’s Eddie McGuire, few AFL heavyweights realise that the ultimate stakeholders in the game are not corporate sponsors (despite their importance) or broadcasters. Rather, it is club members and players who the AFL Commission, executive and clubs are bound to serve.

While Demetriou and the AFL may boast of $1 billion TV rights deals, if that revenue is only achieved by compelling loyal AFL supporters to pay $600 per year for a Foxtel subscription, then the broadcast deal is not actually in the best interests of club members. And while club memberships hit a “record” 614,000 last year, that was largely due to the AFL counting “three game” or “five game” memberships to artificially inflate their statistics, in reality, crowds in many parts of the country (especially Port Adelaide and Brisbane) have languished.

But for all the spin, and Demetriou’s record $2.2 million pay cheque (more than many public company CEOs), the AFL boss chose last week to ignore the first game of the Gold Coast Suns (a team that is costing AFL clubs, and their members, upwards of $100 million) and instead attended the black-tie opening of Myer’s new Melbourne store, alongside Jennifer Hawkins and Brynne Edelsten.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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